The Legislature’s Social Equity Caucus is calling for an “honest and complete” teaching of United States history in Vermont K-12 schools.
The caucus released a statement Thursday, encouraging Vermonters to “challenge a growing narrative coming from outside our borders that is deliberately using fear and division to threaten our world-class education system.”
“The Vermont Legislative Social Equity Caucus supports the teaching of U.S. History uncensored, and believes our youth are deserving of the opportunity to honestly reflect and build authentic connection to one another,” it read.
The statement comes as state legislatures across the country are placing limits on how issues of race and the history of racism in America can be discussed in schools amid concerns that educators are teaching “critical race theory.”
According to an Education Week analysis, 27 states have “introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.” Twelve states, including New Hampshire, have already implemented such bans, through legislation or some other means.
Developed by legal scholars more than 40 years ago, CRT is a framework for understanding how racism exists with systems and institutions. In recent months, the term has become a catchall for any discussion of equity, race and identity happening in schools.
But while national right-wing media has framed anti-CRT fervor as a grass-roots movement, a recent investigation by The Nation magazine characterized it as something closer to AstroTurf.
The report found that conservative think tanks and political organizations with known ties to the billionaire political activist Koch family, such as the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have helped to manufacture current anti-CRT outrage by publishing numerous materials related to CRT during the past year. ALEC has a long history of driving conservative legislation at the state level.
“An average of five pieces per week dropped from late March to June 30, 2021. The pace of propaganda surged in both late May and late June — coinciding with the surge in action by state politicians,” the story read.
“This boogeyman of critical race theory is being used to stop a lot of equity and access conversations from being able to move forward,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, Social Equity Caucus co-chair.
“We are hearing a lot of isolation, pain and frustration from local elected officials,” she said, adding that educators and school board members are reporting threats and increased hostility from some community members.
Ram Hinsdale pointed to an eighth-grade teacher in Irasburg who, last month, became the target of harassment for leading a voluntary exercise in which he asked students to share their preferred pronouns.
“What we’re talking about is whether or not schools should think about equity and access for all students and what honest curriculum looks like,” she said.
Mill River Unified Union School District (MRUUSD) Superintendent David Younce expressed his support for the caucus’ statement in an email Friday, calling for a commitment to “an authentic understanding of our shared past that informs our current decisions and actions in order to create a better future for our children and their children.”
Earlier this month, Mill River Union High School raised the Black Lives Matter flag after more than a year of contentious debate during which School Board meetings have been dominated by residents decrying the display of the flag. During the summer, that opposition evolved to include criticisms of the district’s equity policy and allegations that CRT was being taught in schools.
Younce stressed the need to keep discourse civil.
“There are unfortunately far too many examples from across the country, and even here in Vermont, that have seen our valued traditions of local governance and community discourse turned upside down by actions that are disruptive, threatening or worse,” he stated. “Unless those negative societal trends change, I fear that what we value most about our local governance traditions may become at risk over time.”
Vermont educators have repeatedly stated that CRT is not explicitly being taught in schools, though conversations around race, anti-racism, identity and equity do occur.
In an interview with the Herald earlier this summer, Jodie Stewart-Ruck, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Equity for MRUUSD, explained the nature of the equity work being done in schools.
“Equity in schools is a focus on making sure that all of our students have what they need to feel respected and represented and to be successful in our system,” she wrote. “It does mean looking at our structures and systems and seeing what we can do to better serve all of our kids.”
She added that equity work is also about “increasing the representation of historically marginalized groups through a transformative lens — a transformative lens means focusing on stories of success and accomplishment.”
But such assurances are not enough for parents and community members who remain convinced children are being indoctrinated by what they consider to be radical ideas.
Anti-CRT activists have held a series of forums around Vermont in recent months. One such event, held in Rutland in July, featured conservative political operatives and elected officials from around the state, including Rutland City School Board Commissioner Tricia O’Connor and Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Clarendon.
As opponents of CRT continue their campaign at the local level, some school boards are getting swept up in the rhetoric.
The Springfield School Board recently proposed adopting a resolution affirming that CRT principles will not be taught in district classrooms and limiting discussion of race and gender issues by staff and students. The board will consider the proposal next Thursday.
Springfield School District Superintendent Zach McLaughlin expressed gratitude in an email Friday that state leaders are “being definitive and courageous on this topic.”
“As an educational leader, I endorse the Social Equity Caucus’ belief that our educational system should engage students in an uncensored and authentic appraisal of our history and society. It is core to our work as academic institutions and preparers of future citizens,” he stated.
McLaughlin acknowledged that such ideas can generate fear and a loss of civility in public conversation.
“This is a rocky stretch for several school districts around the state, and I hope as a statewide community we engage in meaningful dialogue and come to new understandings about why this learning is essential in our students’ education,” he wrote.
Ram Hinsdale acknowledged the level of anger and disruption being directed at school districts right now, noting a connection between those who are challenging what’s being taught in schools and those who are challenging pandemic safety measures currently in place in schools.
“I think that there is an attack on the freedom of our educators to do what they need to do to help our kids. And it’s been couched in wanting to deny a set of historical facts, as well as deny science in this moment,” she said.
“We need to give teachers and educators the freedom, right now, to support students wherever they’re at. And these kinds of fights are harming our educational environments at a time when they need our support.”